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Saturday, July 31, 2010

Edible Babies?

This post is NOT about Jonathan Swift's classic satire, "A Modest Proposal," though if you have never read it I highly recommend you do.

I'm thinking about how we use nicknames related to food.

This is most common with babies, and in particular with girl babies. There are a few words, like "honey" and "sugar" and "sweetie pie" (focus on the "pie") that can apply to both boys and girls. However, nicknames like "cupcake" and "peach" do not apply to boys at all, and it's nearly impossible to find food nicknames that are used exclusively for boys. The older the boys get, the less likely it is that they'll be cast in this food-related light. "Beefcake" after all is an unnatural word, invented as a response to the use of "cheesecake" for females.

What does it mean? Well, I'm not about to claim that food nicknames have any literal cannibalistic meaning. However, as a mom who very often threatens playfully to eat her children up, I have some thoughts. This metaphorical "eating" usually has to do with kissing, and I think there is a parallel between the use of eating nicknames and the appropriateness of affectionate kissing with children (usually within the family, but not always). Boys learn to disapprove of it much earlier, and to expect a kind of physical autonomy that makes rough play okay, but snuggly intimacy not okay (I personally think this is a shame). There's also an element of permission involved in being the one "eaten" that can be interpreted as submissiveness - more grist for the feminist mill, and I'm sure that could potentially generate some story ideas.

I think it would be useful to consider what form this sort of intimacy might take in a fantasy or alien society. One could explore an alternate avenue for the nicknaming - different foods might be an obvious direction to go. Another alternative might be to consider physical expressions of intimacy that don't involve the mouth (for cultural or physiological reasons), and see what directions your nicknames might take as a result.

It's something to think about.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

When the set piece has to be UNBELIEVABLY AWESOME...

A couple of days ago, I got to a point in the scene of my latest story, and had to stop. Why? Because I knew I was on the verge of writing the climactic set piece of the story, and whatever I wrote had to be unbelievably awesome.

Living up to my own expectations can be enough to shut me down for days (I suppose it's a variety of writer's block).

Just in case this has ever happened to you, I thought I'd share a few of the things I do when I get blocked by my own expectations.

1. Review your plans.
I look back at what I've sketched out. Usually I have a basic sense of the events required by the plot. "She kills him," for example. Of course, it's important to keep in mind that events alone are not enough. Even the most exciting-sounding events can fall flat if done badly.

2. Back up and look for clues to how you should approach the next piece.
If you work with themes or consistent imagery, see if there's a way to incorporate the theme or the ongoing imagery into the piece that's coming up. In my case, I realized I should try to work typhoons into the scene as it progressed. Even if you don't typically work with themes, you may be able to find little hints that your subconscious has seeded throughout the early sections of your story - places where an image or a connection can be repeated or enhanced.

3. Try getting as close to the ground as possible.
Immerse yourself in your events, your characters, your text. Get as deep into the point of view as you can so that you can be inside your main character's impressions and reactions, and forget everything else. After all, what's looming ahead (the set piece) is primarily looming for you, the author/drafter/editor. For the characters, it typically won't loom as much. Your character may be aware that they have to kill the bad guy - but even if they are, they may not realize it's about to happen now. If you do happen to be in a Percy Jackson situation where you know your time is short, you know the big bad guy's coming right now, etc., then see if you can rely on the supporting characters.

4. Forget about the magnitude of the task, and about trying to make it awesome.
The strength of set pieces comes from two different sources. You might expect that the words you use in a set piece are key to its success. This is true - but those words by themselves aren't what's going to lift this piece into the realm of true awesomeness. If you work too hard to make the words of your set piece awesome, they won't be awesome - they'll be strenuous. The other place you'll be able to build strength for your set pieces is in the material that leads up to them. For example, if the action of the set piece is going to have a huge impact on your point of view character, set up the needs and sensitivities of your character early on and let readers know that certain things will have particular impact for him/her. That way, when you get there, the words you use will gain the additional resonance of all the places where you placed supporting material.

To use a wacky metaphor, imagine that your main character's plot arc is like a boulder rolling down a hill. To make it more exciting, you can decorate the boulder, or you can stick something in the place where it's supposed to land - but how much more exciting would it be to have a whole bunch of boulders (of different sizes?) rolling in from different directions to converge on that one spot? The impact would be much bigger, and its consequences would be much trickier to anticipate.

So after a couple of days and after talking all these elements through with my best writing buddy, I managed to sit down last night and write the piece. Of course it needs work - but it's out there now. The fear is gone.

I hope these suggestions can help you with your set pieces too.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Sorry to have to do this to my wonderful commenters, but I've just enabled comments moderation, because I've been targeted by spammers. I guess any mention of shoes invites the attention of the shoe-hawking community! Imagine.

It ends up being somewhat appropriate, though, because I have a big trip coming up. I'm taking my family to France, and rather than stress myself out trying to blog, I'm going to take a short hiatus from August 4th until September 1st. I'm trying to arrange some guest posts to appear during that time, and I hope I can find someone to moderate comments for me, because I certainly don't want to be comment-spammed when I'm traveling and not able to clean it up. In any case, I'll be keeping the comments moderation on until September 1st.

I do have a couple more posts to share with you before my departure, and and while I'm here I'll try to approve comments as quickly as possible. For those of you who may have been wondering, I don't sell shoes!

I hope you like my pretty Analog covers that I just added to the left bar, showing the magazines in which I've appeared.

Thank you for your patience.


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The language you speak influences how you think!

I'd been looking for a good way to introduce the work of Stanford Psychology professor Lera Boroditsky to my readers, and today I found it in this fantastic article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

Yes, the language you speak does influence how you think.

I think the first people to put forward the idea that a link existed between culture and language were the anthropologists Franz Boas, Edward Sapir, and Benjamin Lee Whorf. The last two of those are associated with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which holds that differences in the way language encodes categories etc. affect the way speakers of that language think. There's been a lot of argument about this idea since it came out, and certainly one can argue against a strong form that says language restricts thought. However, Professor Boroditsky has been exploring exactly what the consequences of certain languages are for thought - and in fact, she's finding there is a huge influence between the two. Russian speakers who have more words for blue than English speakers are in fact better able to distinguish between colors of blue. Speakers of different languages conceptualize the "direction" of time differently: left to right vs. right to left vs. below to above. And those who use absolute direction instead of relative direction (N/S/E/W instead of Left/Right) use those directions to organize things chronologically as well as to think about spatial positioning.

I encourage you not only to read this article, but to think about how this affects your writing. What kind of society have you created? What language do they speak, and how does it frame its categories? Once you've figured that out, ask yourself how that categorization system might be further generalized into the society, its beliefs and its behavior. Language does affect thought - so something that shows up in the language should be evident in basic concepts of reality like how many different colors of blue there are, or whether something hanging on a wall is actually "on" it or "up" it. What kinds of distinctions might your people draw that we might not be familiar with?

When I create my societies, I like to see how far I can push these categories and the judgments surrounding them. In doing so, I hope not only to tell a great story, but to show my readers a new way of imagining and conceptualizing the reality that we all share.

I hope you find this article as inspiring as I did.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Feet and Shoes across cultures

What do you know about feet?

I suppose the most recent thing I've heard about feet comes from runner friends who have been talking about a book, Born to Run, that advocates running without shoes. The argument basically goes, "You've been taught all your life to wear shoes, and have probably shelled out a lot for those specially designed running shoes, but they might actually cause you more injuries."

Well, it's interesting. I haven't researched the science behind the book, but it does go to show that science can always learn something new, and attitudes change, even about something as constantly present as our feet. There are also a lot of different attitudes about feet across cultures, and across history.

One poignant example of this was brought to my attention when I visited the Field Museum in Chicago, where they had a display of shoes from different countries and eras. The collection included beautiful embroidered shoes about two inches long, intended for Chinese women's bound feet. The very sight of them gives me the shivers, yet before the revolution in China they were seen as necessary for the refined beauty of women in the aristocracy. I remember reading Spring Moon by Bette Bao Lord in high school and being fascinated by the way she portrayed changing attitudes surrounding bound feet - in particular the way the older generation regarded the younger generation whose feet had not been bound.

I could spend a lot of time trying to list all the things we saw in the display, but I'll just do a few here. Fishing boots from Hokkaido made out of fish skin - with scales! Sandals from Hungary that looked like little tables - they had two wooden supports underneath and were inlaid with mother of pearl. Moccasins from American Indian nations. It even included modern shoes from Chicago.

One of the things I particularly remarked on in the display was a pair of snow boots from Japan, made out of rice straw. They dated from the 1970's - a lot later than I expected. Historically, sandals, rain/snow coats and boots were made of rice straw in Japan (if you have a lot of it, it makes sense to put it to use!). Then there were the construction shoes from Japan and the dockwork shoes from the US, both of which had a big toe that was separated from the smaller toes (almost as if it could wear a flip-flop over it). I've actually seen Japanese workers climbing around on scaffolding wearing these shoes - they look like blue canvas boots with rubber soles and the separated big toe. The wooden sandal-clogs from Japan called geta usually have two wooden "teeth" underneath on which you walk, but we saw a pair in the display that were made for wearing in the rain. These had very very tall wooden teeth and a leather cover to go over and protect the wearer's toes.

So here's a question: how different from each other are the shoes we wear now, and how does their form reflect their function? Sports shoes take all kinds of forms, high ankles or low, with all kinds of decorative patterns. Women's shoes come in all kinds of heel heights (though men in the era of Louis XIV in France were the first to wear high heels). When I shopped for shoes recently, I noticed that the sleek look I like in a shoe tends to come with a high heel, and not with a flat. Tough for me, because I can't wear high heels without hurting myself. The other thing I always have to look out for when shopping is the sole of the shoe. Women's shoes in particular tend to have very flimsy soles and not stand up to much walking.

I couldn't help asking myself whether this reflected the low value Americans appear to put on walking from place to place. Why walk when we could take our cars? Why walk when it would take so long (though it probably would take far less long than you'd think)? Why would we need strong soles for our shoes if we're not doing sports and we're not "rugged"?

The last thing I'd like to mention is the question of whether feet are inherently "dirty." Yes, certainly we know to be concerned with tracking mud in the house, and we don't want to put dirty feet in a clean bed. But running around barefoot in America is romanticized as a sign of freedom and maybe being in touch with one's inner child. Running around barefoot in Japan isn't done. If I were ever to step outside my door in bare feet when I lived there, people would look at me in complete shock. Shoes are worn outside, and then taken off in the entry hall (genkan) so they will not bring dirt into the house. Still, inside people wear slippers - and there's a special pair of slippers that must only be worn while in the bathroom (actually I should specify: the slippers are to be worn in the toilet room, not the room with the bathtub). Also, it's seen as inappropriate to use your feet to open or close doors or accomplish anything that is rightly done with the hands.

The point of this entire discussion is to bring attention to the way that different cultures perceive feet, shoes, how they are used, and what is beautiful or ugly about them. When you're putting together a fantasy or science fictional society, be aware that you can include differences in the value of common things, like feet and shoes, to add interest to your alien or fantasy culture. So long as the value of feet and shoes is consistent with other beliefs in the culture, it won't even necessarily stand out as bizarre, but will give a new level of depth to the culture you're trying to portray.

It's something to think about.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Why read your work aloud?

It's always a good idea to read your stories aloud. I know many people who do it. For years, I read every word I wrote to my husband (bless him!) on a nightly basis. I still read aloud to him occasionally (though kids and life make a nightly session impossible), and I've practiced for readings with him, too.

To my mind, reading aloud is an important test for any story - and it works on several levels.

The first thing that reading aloud can do is give you some distance on what you've written. Sometimes you spend so much time going over and over the words on the screen that you know them by heart, and you stop being able to see problems that might be there. Reading aloud is one way to push that text away, and put it into a context where you can be more aware of what's actually there, rather than what you think/know is there from the million times you've run your eyes over it. Printing out the story and looking at it that way can have a similar effect, but does require more paper and ink!

The second thing that reading aloud can do for you is give you a sense of the rhythmic feel of your prose. As you go through, awkward spots will give you pause, or even cause your tongue to stumble. When this happens, it's a good idea to change what you've written - because if it makes you pause or stumble, chances are your readers will have the same problem.

Those two aspects of reading aloud are helpful from the very beginning of the writing process. Once you've gotten a bit further in, you may be interested in designing character voices - and reading aloud can help you here, too.

If you've never had the experience of "reading in voices," I encourage you to try it - either with your own work or with the stories of others. You don't need to alter your voice in any extreme way; nobody needs to morph into Frank Oz to experience how this can help. Put yourself into the character's mindset as you do when writing his/her point of view, and see how your voice comes out. A strong character voice will give a distinct feel to the sound of your reading.

This can help you in two ways. First, if your writing is falling out of the voice into a more generic mode, you'll hear it. The sensation of that voice will change and you'll start sounding more like a generic narrator. Second, you should notice that your voice needs to change when you change points of view. If this doesn't happen, it's a red flag that maybe the voices aren't distinct enough. I actually surprised myself when I practiced reading The Eminence's Match aloud, and I stumbled when I first changed scenes. Suddenly I wasn't in Nekantor's voice any more, I was in Household Director Samira's - and I had to stop and think through what she should sound like when I read. That prepared me for how I might have to change my reading voice again when I hit another character point of view. Fortunately, the voice differences were already present in the manuscript (I just hadn't read it aloud in quite a while!). It was really fun to think about what to do with my reading tone in the various scenes, and the reading at BayCon turned out to be gleeful fun for me.

In any case, it's always a good idea to read your work aloud. You can learn a lot about it (and about reading it to others, a useful skill), and even help to push your work to the next level in revisions.

It's something to think about.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Creating the next great alien language... why?

A couple of days ago I read and linked to an interesting article over on io9, called How to write the next great alien language. The article compares the Elvish languages (Sindarin and Quenya) and the Klingon language, and opens as follows:

Constructing an entire alien language is the most challenging task in all of speculative fiction, and there are two examples that tower above the rest: J.R.R. Tolkien's Elvish and Marc Okrand's Klingon. We'll show you how to outdo even them.

When it comes to world-building, there's no finer way to capture an alien culture than to give it a language that seems utterly strange to human ears. It's obviously a challenging task, and one that requires a decent working knowledge of linguistics. So while we have to leave the nitty-gritty of language construction to a textbook, what we can do is examine the very different overarching approaches used in constructing the two most iconic alien languages - Elvish and Klingon - and then explain how you could create a language that combines the best of both.

When they talk about overarching approaches, they are effectively referring to the fact that Tolkien based his Elvish tongues in part on a pair of human languages (Finnish and Welsh) and extensively developed the history of changes these languages, while Marc Okrand used existing names and a couple of lines of dialogue as a basis for creating a Klingon language system with an extensive vocabulary that could cover all kinds of topics (Klingon Hamlet, anyone?) but didn't delve into history of Klingon at all.

Let me start by saying that I'm terribly impressed with both Tolkien and Okrand for their achievements. The io9 article didn't mention Paul Frommer or Na'vi, but as I've understood it from independent research, Frommer designed the Na'vi language of Avatar in a somewhat similar way to Klingon (i.e. by approach from a contemporary linguistic perspective, though without the snippets of previous language use as a basis).

I wondered about a couple of things in this article. First, there's a general idea that one should give an alien culture a language that sounds "utterly strange" to human ears. How do you define "utterly strange?" I suppose I'd say that an alien language must have two major features: it must be unintelligible by speakers of any existing human language, and it must have no etymological connection with any existing human language. If it did have such connections, it wouldn't be "alien" by definition. Beyond that it's a matter of personal taste.

Marc Okrand had to work with an existing description of Klingon as "guttural," which affected his choice of the language's sounds. He also tried to have patterns of sounds in the sound system that didn't occur in existing world languages - his example was having a sound for V without having one for F. In the area of grammar he chose to use object-verb-subject word order, which is the most unusual in world languages. Overall, I would summarize by concluding that he was trying to defeat the human language "universals" in order to make the language very alien.

Paul Frommer was freer in his choice of sounds because he got to start from scratch, and in articles about his creation of Na'vi he has said he deliberately chose language sounds for his sound system that came from rare Earth languages and thus would be hard for most humans to recognize. Na'vi is in some sense the opposite of Klingon, in that it has no V - instead it has P and an ejective, written "px". Verb conjugation is by infixes rather than prefixes or suffixes - another deliberate choice to make the language unusual. You can read more about it at Wikipedia or at Learn Na'vi.

One of the key features of both Klingon and Na'vi, though, was that they had to be pronounceable by humans so that they could be used in a movie - and as it turns out, Sindarin Elvish is also pronounceable by humans; its vocabulary has been developed for use in the Lord of the Rings films.

That brings me to the question of how one might "outdo" Tolkien and Okrand - one of the proposals of the io9 article. They imply that the next great alien language should involve both an extensive contemporary vocabulary and a sense of historical development. Seems logical, at least inasmuch as that would "fill in the blanks" of what the developers of these existing languages didn't cover.

But my commenter Megs had a different point of view: "I think one of the most fundamental things about creating an ALIEN language isn't so much to use things that are rare in human languages, but to not BASE them on human languages. Just use logic to create a system that communicates. But maybe that's just me."

Okay, so Megs would want to create a system of communication that's not based on human languages, just on logic. One could argue that the logic required has some human basis too, but I see her point. What about extremely different alien physiology? What about scent language, or visual language? Alien is alien, right?

In order to understand the parameters here, I think we have to ask one critical question:

Why am I creating this language?

The answer to that question will determine everything about the language you create. Tolkien set out to create a history of mythology, and thus spent a lot of time on the history of his languages; that was a natural consequence. Okrand and Frommer set out to create languages that could be used by human actors on film, which required extensive vocabulary and contemporary usage, but did not require that they trace the history of the languages - and heavens forbid they should create something that was unpronounceable!

So let's get back to basics. The purpose of most science fiction and fantasy languages is to function in a story. The nature of that story is what determines the features and qualities of the language.

Here are some examples of languages that I've created, what parts of them I've created, and why:

Gariniya was based on the idea of a canon-based language - a language that consisted primarily of oblique references to a set of stories that all speakers of the language knew. To my knowledge, this language concept originated with Star Trek: The Next Generation's episode Darmok. My own contribution was to the culture surrounding it, in particular to finding ways for the language to have evolved and ways that the language would be learned and passed on (which I had felt were missing in the Star Trek episode; see my entry Darmok and Me). I also needed culture surrounding it, dictating the conditions of its use. For the purposes of the story I did NOT need it to have either an extensive vocabulary or a fully realized grammar. I designed phonology pretty thoroughly, constructed a few words to use in the story, and that was sufficient for my purposes.

Aurrel & Khachee
Both Aurrel, from "Cold Words," and Khachee, from my forthcoming story "At Cross Purposes," are entirely original in concept and execution. Similarly to Gariniya, though, they have well-developed phonology but don't have a big vocabulary because I only needed to use a few names and concepts in the stories. As I've said before, the more of an alien language you use, the more you alienate the reader, so if you're working from an insider perspective, it's good to use as little of the alien language as possible. Both of these languages differ from Gariniya in that I did much more design of their grammar. I started with one single key feature that was going to cause the most trouble in the story - status dialects in Aurrel and discourse/turn-taking structure in Khachee - and then developed from there. Another reason that grammar knowledge was important was because I tried to alter my use of English so I could sound like a native-speaker-of-alien-language-speaking-English when in the alien point of view. Aurrel also had a language evolutionary angle, and a historical angle, because these were directly relevant to the plot.

The Varinn language (from Varin, as you've probably guessed) is the most extensive language I've created. I did intend it to be pronounceable - and relatively easily pronounceable - by humans, since the Varini (people of Varin) themselves are humans. It has phonology and syntax and morphology, and I've delved far into cultural issues surrounding its use by various social groups. It also has a rudimentary history as a language, including sound changes and changes in verb conjugations. This is because I have other stories that I've designed in which this history becomes important. I've also developed more vocabulary for this one because I wanted to have a Varinn translation of certain songs and oaths that appear in the story. However, I hardly ever use it in the stories themselves. All of the stories are told from an insider perspective, and thus need to be effectively "in translation" whenever possible so the language won't distract from the story.

So when it comes right down to it, what makes a really great invented language?

The io9 article, and some comments that have followed it, seem to suggest that it would be better to include both concurrent vocabulary and language history - an additive sort of solution based on their analysis of Elvish and Klingon. Even if you had both, though, the language wouldn't have all the richness, irregularity, cultural grounding, manners, etc. of a natural language.

I'm going to argue, though, that the next "great alien language" is not going to be much like a natural language, for one single reason: without a great story to rest upon and guide its form, a language would have no reason to exist. It might be quite comprehensive and possibly quite alien (if that's what its creators were after), but nobody would care about it. A language needs a world, and characters, and a story, to make it compelling and worthwhile. Once it's in the hands of dedicated fans and learners, anything is possible. After all, creole languages are natural languages, vibrant, with functional grammar, and these languages develop naturally in locations where adults have been using awkward pidgin. Once you've put the accepted usage into the hands of learners, especially child learners, language tends to take on a life of its own.

So if you're creating a language, be careful of losing yourself in the conlang process, and make sure to keep an eye out for the needs of the story you want to tell. I encourage linguistic research, exacting standards, and lots of hard work - if that's what you're into. But for those of you who don't have tons of time to devote to language development, keep in mind that an effective and functional alien tongue doesn't need to be extensive to work. It just needs to be systematic and serve the needs of the story you want to tell.

The Panverse Kickstarter Project

I want to bring to your attention a project that I'm supporting. I've talked a number of times about Panverse Publishing here, in part because I'm in their Eight Against Reality anthology - and this time I hope you'll consider checking out their latest expansion project. Editor Dario Ciriello wants to help expand the sf/f markets in these trying times, by expanding his distribution and branching into novels with a special focus on new authors. He's working with Kickstarter to do this.

Kickstarter is site that supports grass-roots fundraisers. It's easy to use because it's easy to sign into (especially if you're on Facebook), they don't share your information, and they take pledges as small as $5. What's more, unless the project is fully funded you won't be charged at all.

Dario has put together a video about his vision for the future of Panverse, and I encourage you to check it out:

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Article about creating alien languages

Here's a cool article I ran across thanks to TTA Press on Facebook. It compares Elvish and Klingon and talks about how to go about approaching "the next great alien language." No mention of Na'vi, which surprised me, but it does have quite a long video in which Marc Okrand talks about his creation of Klingon. Very interesting stuff.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

That awesome line you just wrote...

Sometimes, you write a line and you just love it. It has that ring that gets you right in the heart as a writer. It's either the perfect thing for that character, or awesome for that scene, or maybe it just jazzes you up because it sounds so good.

I wrote one like that a couple of days ago. I'll share it just for fun - it's from a piece I'm working on that is set in Heian-era Japan:

Foxes were passable poets, though I'd never known any of their clan to grow flowers at will.

For whatever reason, that line made me unreasonably happy. Which is why I was shocked and dismayed when I realized that the scene needed to be altered and I was about to destroy the context in which it had appeared.

Kill your darlings, they say, but if you just know the line is right, what should you do?

First things first: never ignore story structure, no matter how much you like that line. If the scene can be strengthened or redirected to maintain the line, feel free to do that, but be careful not to slap bandaids on and call it good. If the structure of the story won't support it, you could be killing your story drive, which is a far worse thing than losing the beautiful line. So if you can't justify keeping the scene, then the line has to go...

...somewhere else.

Hey, if you love the line, don't just delete it! Take a few steps to see whether you can keep it in another place.

1. Ask yourself what the line is doing for the story. In my case, the line about foxes is functioning to enhance the setting, and the sense of the narrator's personality. If it's not doing anything, it may simply not belong.

2. Ask yourself if the function performed by that line might work in another location. I happen to have found a spot where I think the line works as internalization that follows a line of dialogue earlier in the scene.

3. If you can't find an alternate spot right away, put the line aside in a place where you'll be able to find it. Maybe that place is the tail end of your file; maybe it's in a separate file of lines that are looking for a home. You might hit on another good place for it, in which case you know where to find it. And if you don't, it's still there for you and might someday work in another story. Not sure how I'd write another story with foxes and flowers, but so far I think I'm doing all right just moving the line slightly!

There are two directions from which to consider your text. Top-down looks at structural elements and considers how the sentences serve them, while bottom-up looks at the sentences as they flow along and tries to identify how they form larger patterns. Neither one can function entirely on its own. Creating a perfect line is an instance of bottom-up success, but for your story to be most successful, it's a good idea to consider what it's doing from the top-down direction as well. When both directions are working together to form a cohesive whole, that's a good recipe for a successful story.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Know Your Character Inside and Out

For an update to this post with additional questions, click to: Designing character interviews that really matter (including genre-inspired questions)

What do you really need to know about your character? There are a lot of lists out there offering possible interview questions that you can use to flesh out a character, but when I look at them, I find they don't help me much. Why? Well, because of the amount of stuff they ask that isn't precisely relevant - at least, not relevant to the characters I use. It's not much help to ask if Allayo or Rulii or the History Keeper like coffee - they've never heard of it, and it would have nothing to do with their stories even if they had!

The other day I ran across some terrific character questions over at Nicola Morgan's blog, Help! I Need a Publisher! The reason these questions are great is that they offer in parentheses a sense of how the question is relevant to story elements - so I'm going to start by commenting on them and then add some of my own.

Please notice I haven't changed the wording of Nicola Morgan's questions. She chose to phrase them as if they were directly asking questions of the character. I approve of this heartily. Many people tend to ask questions about character (and world) in a distant manner, but taking the questions and putting them in personal address form automatically takes you one step closer to finding the voice of your character. Take advantage - answer as if you were the character, and let a simple switch of pronoun put you in your character's head as you get started. Here are the questions, quoted from Nicola Morgan with my own comments in color:

1. What is your worst fear? And your second worst? (Likely to be part of the conflict and tension.) Indeed, this should probably happen during the story.

2. What would you most like people to know about you? (Make sure it's obvious, then.) I'm going to split this one in two:

Part A - What do you want readers to know about you? Seed information like this in character memories, emotional reactions, judgments, or actions.

Part B - What do you want story characters to know about you? This affects how you outwardly represent yourself and the social groups you belong to, for instance in your choice of clothing, speech/interactive style, etc.
3. What would you most like to hide? (Every hero has a flaw.) I think this is related to #2, inasmuch as readers should be aware of these flaws even if story characters are not. The kinds of things we hide are often related to our desire for acceptance in particular social groups, and/or our desire to escape punishment by them. It's reasonable to anticipate that a major character flaw will be revealed or at least cause the protagonist serious trouble in the course of the story.
4. What would you most like to change about your life? (Could be part of the conflict and motivation; could be sub-plot.) I would add, "And how does that affect your current behavior?"

5. Why should we care about you? (Because if we don't, we won't read on.) This is a big one - indeed, a story deal-breaker. If you can't answer this question, your story isn't ready. Period. It's also a show-don't-tell problem... a character shouldn't tell us why we should care. Usually it's a question of having them share their goals and desires with the reader and then showing what will happen if they don't reach those goals.

6. What were you doing before this story started? (This informs your back-story.) I always like to have a fully fleshed back-story including elements of personal history that helped the character get into the position that they are currently in, both physically and emotionally/psychologically.
7. Do people understand you? If not, what do they get wrong? (Makes your character more real because it informs interaction with other characters.) And why? What is it about you that confuses people? Cultural differences perhaps, including different interpretation of manners and behavior? Different moral values? Different language?
8. If I met you for the first time, would I immediately know what you were like or would it take a while to get to know you? (As above.) And does this differ depending upon the type of person you're interacting with? Who has an easy time getting to know you? Who has a hard time? This will relate to questions of what kind of people you trust and what kind you don't.

9. What sort of people like you? Do adults like you? Do boys like you? Do girls like you? Why? Or why not? (Helps place your character within the real world instead of just on the page. It may also inspire some ideas for painting your character richly but subtly.) Keep in mind that distinctions like child/adult, boys/girls might not be the most important. When dealing with another culture, there can be all kinds of distinctions (caste borders, clique borders, subculture borders, institutionally defined roles, etc.) Which social groups are inclined to like you and which are not, and why?
10. Are you happy on your own? (As above.) What does being alone mean to you?
11. What are you going to achieve in my story? (Crucial for plot, since character drives action.) In my mind this is related to the question of why we should care. What do you want to achieve?

12. What trivial but annoying habit do you have? (Makes character more real. Character can show this habit when angry / sad / stressed - helps you show without telling emotion too much.)) To whom is it annoying and why?

13. What trivial but annoying habits do you dislike in other people? (As above.) There are a lot of questions one could pursue on the topic of what a character finds annoying. What constitutes invasion for you? What do you consider dirty? etc.

14. What four (or three or five) adjectives best sum you up? (Helps you remember traits to paint most strongly.) This is a really good place to think about the kind of language your character would use. What qualities does the character's culture define as virtuous? As evil? As unruly or problematic? Try to pick adjectives that imply judgment, such as "incorrigible," "valorous," "ladylike," " etc.
15. Are you going to die in this story? Should you? (Informs plot and interacts with reader's engagement.) I'm not so sure about this one, just because I like to have the character be ignorant of his/her own future. However, it would be interesting to know whether the character wants to die, and how he or she feels about death.
The next set of questions is my own, designed to address specifically the intersection of character and world. Since in sf/f, establishing the nature of the world is a major task that must be accomplished at the same time as introducing the character, why not let your character carry your world in his/her own mind, emotions and judgments? These are the questions - which I phrased as though you were the character asking them of yourself:

1. What is my home like? How do I visualize its boundaries?
2. What weather and physical conditions do I consider normal? What do I fear?
3. What kind of topography did I grow up in, and how did it influence my physical condition and my concepts of comfort?
4. In what kind of place do I feel most at home? What shapes and textures give me comfort, or discomfort?
5. Who is in charge here? Do I respect them, fear them, both?
6. How do I show who I am in the way I dress? What is comfortable? Will I endure discomfort for the sake of looking good or looking powerful?
7. Where do the things I own come from? Do I worry about getting more?
8. What is delicious to me? What do I consider unworthy of consumption?
9. What are my most prized possessions? Do I hoard anything? Do I have so much of anything that I care little if I must give it away?
10. Who do I consider to be unlike me? Are their differences charming or alarming?
11. Am I in control of my own actions and the happenings around me? What or whom do I believe in?

The last thing I want to mention here is character motivation, which I've discussed before but which bears mentioning. Setting up a character's fundamental motivators is very important, but they're a little like a push off the wall in swimming. It'll get your swimmer pretty far, but not all the way to the other side. Each plot event or interaction will change the character's trajectory slightly, and the character's response to events acts like the swimmer's stroke. That additional level of moment-by-moment motivation can drastically change the action and the result.

I was just working on this very thing in my current story, where one of my characters comes to see another, gets pushed away, but then keeps coming back for another attempt. He needs an overall goal when he enters the interaction initially, and this is related to his fundamental motivators. However, once he leaves the interaction for the first time, those initial motivators won't be enough to get him to go back to it. He needs some new rationale to get himself to re-enter the interaction for the second time, and then the third.

In any case, I hope you find these various approaches to character as interesting and useful as I have. Special thanks again to Nicola Morgan for her post.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Back from Chicago

For those of you who may have wondered, I wasn't blogging with my usual frequency because I've been on a trip to Chicago. I just got back today; it may take me a couple of days to resume my usual routine, but I'm happy to be back. I hope all of you are enjoying your summertime (or wintertime, for my SoHem friends...)!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Becoming "A Writer"

Did you feel like "a writer" when you started to write? I didn't. I suppose I felt 1. like a person trying an experiment, 2. like someone who'd discovered a dangerously absorbing hobby, 3. like a person writing alone in a closet (not literally!) when she should have been doing something else.

To take the closet metaphor a little further, there came a point when I decided to "come out." This meant talking to other people about my writing - at first, those people were friends who were interested in science fiction and fantasy already. Sometimes, though, I ended up having cool sf/f related conversations with people on airplanes, or in other relatively anonymous circumstances where I could "try on" the identity I felt I was striving for.

At a certain point in this process I had one of my little disconnected anthropological epiphanies.

I wasn't going to feel like "a writer" just because I was writing. I needed to take a public stance - in a sense, to declare my identity as a writer within a community that would recognize me as one.

This was a project.

Changing one's identity isn't as easy as slapping another label on. I take the identity of "writer" very seriously, in the sense of taking writing as a vocation, and I didn't want to be a person who was pretending to be a writer (I felt like this in some conversations). Fortunately I discovered something: the community of science fiction and fantasy writers is an extremely welcoming one, willing to help you join them.

That said, I think it's important to realize that entering any social community needs to be done with care and respect. It helps if you can recognize early on that this is what you are in fact doing, and think through the steps you want to take. It's not enough to go out and say to others, "I'm a writer. See how good I am? You want to read and publish* my work!" You need to enact writer-ness at the same time.

*This isn't really a post about getting published, though getting published is related to the process of becoming a writer. The nice thing about getting published is that people go to the trouble of writing down steps to take and rules to follow, so that you can take/follow them.

So how does one enact writer-ness?

If you're paying attention, the closer you get to writers, the more you'll learn about what they (we!) are like. Of course, I know enough writers by now to tell you definitively that there is no one single way to be a writer. However, I still think there are some helpful ingredients worth mentioning.

If you're not doing that, then why are we talking about this anyway?

2. Strive to improve your craft.
There is no pinnacle, and there is no "done" until the words are on the page the publisher has printed for you. There is only, "this is as good as I can make it right now." Every conversation you have, and every new thing you learn can open your eyes to more depth and possibility.

3. Listen respectfully.
So long as it addresses the content of your text, every word of feedback you receive on your work is worth listening to. If your aunt or your mom says they get confused at the beginning, believe them, and think about what that might mean for your approach. If you are on a critique group like Critters, consider each piece of feedback and why the reader might have had the impression they had. If you are lucky enough to get feedback from an established writer, be grateful and think through its import very carefully. There will be much to learn there even if you disagree.

4. Read attentively.
Read both to experience the range of story, style and voice, and to "get to know" authors in your field.

5. Try to meet and talk to other writers.
This can be literal face-to-face meeting or it can be engaging on the internet through blog comments, etc. Face to face opportunities are more valuable, I believe. One important thing to note here, however: going fangirl or fanboy is not going to be particularly effective for your learning process (as tempting as it is!). I think the place where I learned the most about writers was when I went to the Nebulas weekend - which was all writers and a very very few fans. I realized that most writers love to talk about their work, especially in direct and specific terms, so if I had a story of theirs that I could make comments on, I would have something meaningful to contribute to a conversation in which I could learn a whole lot.

You may have noticed at this point that I think it's valuable to approach the community of writers from the stance of a learner. I still take this stance all the time. This doesn't mean that you have nothing to offer of your own - of course not - but from the point of view of writing craft, it's important to recognize the experience and resulting expertise of others. Even if that person's writing is not your favorite kind, their success in the community will be related to their expertise in any of a range of different areas (gorgeous prose, great pacing, "story," inventiveness, marketing savvy, etc. - and not necessarily all at once).

I was very lucky going in, because I had my academic background, and I was able to use it to help my craft and to hone my ideas. Linguistics and Anthropology are great resources, and I was able to have wonderful conversations with writers where I felt like I actually did have some expertise - not in being a writer (yet, at that point), but at least in language and culture (topics which are clearly useful to stories). This blog has done wonderful things for my writing career: it helps people to learn my name, it helps me focus my own thoughts, and it creates a community that I can feel a part of on a daily basis, so that I don't feel any more like I'm writing in that little closet. The best part of it for me is that I started it out of love of the topics I discuss, and I still enjoy writing it - it helps me, and yet is not a chore.

We are so lucky to have the internet. Online is where the community of geographically separated writers can "meet" and interact - one of the reasons why it's worth spending time there.

But don't forget to write.

Our writing lies at the core of our identity as writers. I might meet an author at a convention or see them appear online, but unless I've read their work I don't feel like I really know them. I think this is the case for a lot of us. Similarly, it's possible to hang out with writers all the time and yet never be one, either because you're not writing or because no one cares to read your work. This points to a critical step in entering the community of writers: getting people to read your work.

Getting published is a terrific way to get read, no doubt about it. But remember all those rejections? If the editor read past the first sentence, they shouldn't be considered a waste. A rejection with comments is true gold, because it means the editor cared. It might look like a "no," but it might better be phrased as, "no, but I can see you're a writer." Other writers will respect you for having rejections like that, especially if they can see you're using them to improve your craft. And when you finally get an acceptance, your identity in the editor's mind will not be on that story alone, but in your history of interaction (as impersonal as those interactions might seem at first).

Because your writing is at the core of your identity as a writer, asking someone to read your work is a more high-stakes activity than you might imagine. Don't push it. Approach it with care, and with an awareness that professional active writers are extremely busy. Chances are good that they're either slammed with deadlines, excited about putting together the climax of the story they're working on, or trying to fit their writing in around the other busy parts of their life (like full-time jobs, children, etc.). Don't be offended if they say no, and similarly, be thrilled if they say yes. Not only is that gift of their time and attention extremely valuable, but they're expressing their willingness to consider you as a potential colleague. One great way to approach this is to comment on published stories in a constructive and respectful manner, and to volunteer to critique for someone if the opportunity presents itself. Your ability to provide a helpful critique can demonstrate your willingness to contribute to the other person's success - and writers help each other.

There is probably a lot more I could say about this topic, but at this point I'm going to close by saying I'm extremely grateful to all the many people who have taken the time to read and comment on my stories. I've learned a lot from you, and I know I will continue to learn in the future. At this point, though, there's one thing I can say with joy and confidence:

I am a writer.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Do I have a story?

I have a story. This is not the same thing as saying, "I have an idea." In my particular case, I've been searching for this story for a while because numerous people had asked me to write it. "Write a sequel to Cold Words," they said. Easier said than done.

My linguistics stories are like puzzles, with lots of complicated interlocking parts, so as a result I feel I have to know where they are going or I can't even start. "Cold Words" was like this. The idea of writing a sequel had several advantages over starting from scratch:

1. I wouldn't have to design a world with aliens.
2. I wouldn't need an entirely new main character.
3. I wouldn't need an entirely new alien language and an entirely new voice.

All of this is an incredible time-saver. But as many who have tried to write sequels probably know, there are also some serious disadvantages.

1. Any subject of a major revelation in story one has to be a starting premise for story two. You need to inform readers of the "secret" (or former secret) in case they haven't read the prequel, but it can't be the point, or the story will just be covering the same ground.
2. Having a world and a character, and even quite a clear sense of chronology and what would have happened after the first story ended, does not mean you have a story.

This number 2 can effectively stop me in my tracks, because until I have a story, I won't start writing (this is not the case for all writers!). I might also remark, of course, that the lack of a story hasn't stopped many sequel-makers, at least in the case of certain movies I have watched.

What is a story? I'll sum it up this way:

Character X discovers Y and must accomplish Z before A happens or else B.

This rather closely resembles the elevator pitch for a novel. It distills story essence down to its bare bones.

In my case, I've been gathering elements that I like - Rulii and his dependency on humans, his relationship with Parker - and questions that people have asked me - about gender relations among the Aurrel, etc - and trying to fit them together. At last I've gotten somewhere. I don't want to spoil any surprises, so I'll just say that Character X is still Rulii, Y involves Parker, Z involves Parker and an Aurrel Female, and B has to do with human presence on Aurru. It's always good to ask yourself, "What's the worst thing that could happen to my character now?" and try to have it stand in that B position. That makes for a much more exciting story.

In fact, it's good to ask whether you have a story even if it's not a sequel, though sequels are probably more prone to the lack-of-story problem. Giving your character goals and stakes makes everything more exciting.